Wednesday, September 30, 2020

the last book I read

All Shook Up by William Bedford. 

It's the late 1950s (which year is never specified exactly but the Elvis song which gives the novel its title was released in 1957) and Stephen Godard is living on the east coast (presumably Lincolnshire) with his mother and father when his father, a policeman, gets a new posting in charge of an American Air Force base, in the same general area but inland. This entails the whole family upping sticks and moving to a new house in the vicinity of the base, which is being used (the base, not the house) to store the new Nemesis nuclear missile, this being the height of the Cold War and all.

Stephen isn't terribly impressed about the move, but soon makes the best of it and makes some new friends: brittle, cynical Matthew, robust, sporty Barbara and enigmatic, scholarly Caroline, all of whose parents have some connection with the base.

Stephen and his friends are all in their mid-to-late teens and therefore at that age when firstly those feelings, you know, down there, start to make themselves known, and furthermore an age where they are expected to move seamlessly from being provided for at home and school to providing for themselves at college and in employment, the nature of which they are meant to have some clear ideas about. Like many teenagers, though, Stephen doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life. Stephen's father, on the other hand, has some pretty firmly-held views on the subject: Stephen should join the police force like his father, instead of poncing around with book-reading and other suspect activities like some sort of namby-pamby lah-di-dah poofter.

Stephen finds himself unable to resist his father's will and joins the police as a cadet, although he chafes at having to submit to the rigid hierarchical regime, and finds himself traumatised by some of the police reports (complete with gruesome photos) that he is required to read through. Meanwhile he hangs out with his friends quaffing cider down at the local pub and conducting a fledgling romance with pretty, enigmatic Caroline, happy to adhere to a Stakhanovite schedule of furtive handjobs but unwilling for the moment to go any further.

All the stuff that's parked on Stephen's doorstep has an impact on his life as well, though: the local police (with Stephen in tow) conduct a raid on a local house which is being used as a brothel (with many of the American military personnel from the base as clients), and the world finds itself facing the prospect of imminent fiery armageddon as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, and the base mobilises to prepare for the unthinkable possibility of having to deploy the Nemesis missile.

After it becomes clear that life in general is, in fact, going to go on, it also becomes clear that life as Stephen and his friends have known it is going to end - not only is everyone heading off to college, but Nemesis is being decommissioned and the base shut down, which means Stephen's father will be posted somewhere else. Caroline's father is being posted to the United States and Caroline will be going with him and attending university over there, so Stephen and Caroline enjoy a last few glorious weeks of valedictory fucking before she departs and Stephen finally screws up his courage and resigns from the police force to take up a college place to study to be a journalist.

There is a sense in which all coming-of-age novels, including the ones which have appeared on this blog (a list which includes Pig, The Levels, Demian, Bluesman, The Leaves On Grey and My Summer Of Love among others) cover much the same ground, i.e. the transition from childhood to adulthood, complete with some awkward fumbly furtive sticky couplings (though Stephen and Caroline seem to get the hang of it pretty quickly) and then a sense of things coming to an end as the principal character and his or her contemporaries head out into the world to seek their fortunes. In particular there are some echoes of The Levels here as Caroline, slightly posher and richer than Stephen, does her effortless social mobility thing and flits off leaving Stephen a bit more tied to his original location (college course notwithstanding). 

So you're never going to be able to avoid clich√© completely, but within its self-imposed constraints I think All Shook Up does a pretty good job. There is an odd sense in which we get to know Stephen less well than, say, Matthew and Barbara, but maybe this just reflects that at that age (and perhaps any age) nothing is more mysterious to us than our own motivations for doing any of the things we choose to do. The specific details of the novel's location resonated with me, not because I'm at all familiar with Lincolnshire but because some of my formative years (during the Cold War) were spent living within a small nuclear warhead's throw of a fully tooled-up American Air Force base at Greenham Common. If the base in All Shook Up was meant to resemble a real one then it was probably Hemswell

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